Is Meditation the Secret to Pregnancy Stress Relief?
Pregnancy is usually an overall exciting time, but rare is the pregnant woman who doesn’t experience at least some stress during those nine long, life-changing months. Amid the excitement and anticipation, there are many changes and some uncertainty.
There’s a way to deal with your stress that’s all-natural, drug-free, relatively easy, super cheap, and best of all, effective. We’re referring to good old-fashioned meditation. Research suggests that meditating during pregnancy may help to lower stress levels, boost mood, and have a positive impact on the health of your newborn—all good reasons to give it a try.
Meditation: The Basics
Meditation is a way of quieting the brain to connect to the present moment. It may be done by using a technique such as mindfulness meditation or by simply focusing the mind on a particular activity, thought, or object.
Mindfulness meditation is a centuries-old contemplative practice that can be a way to gain awareness of what your body is doing and what your mind is thinking. “Meditation is a practice that opens up the path to one's inner world,” explains Claudia de Llano, a licensed marriage and family therapist from California, currently based in Singapore, who practices private counseling and teaches meditation online.
“Through meditation, we can learn to quiet our minds, listen to our bodies, and harmonize our being,” she says.
De Llano believes the experience of meditation can provide access to an internal experience of the self that is often unknown in our everyday states of sleep and wakefulness. “It is, in some ways, a third state of being,” she says.
The Power of Om
“So often, our mind is anywhere but the present reality—perhaps replaying a prior incident, or worrying about an imagined future scenario—and meditation gives us a tool to halt those trains of thought and ultimately release them from the mind,” says Pamela Brewer, a meditation guide at Brooklyn Meditation, in New York City. “We can naturally arrive back in the present with clarity and resilience.”
It can be challenging to scientifically study meditation because there are so many variables involved: the instructor, the method, the time period, the practitioner’s own health and state of mind when starting, and more.
However, a large review of the research on meditation in 2014 suggests that while meditation programs aren’t always foolproof, they may indeed result in small-to-moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Anecdotally, many people say that a regular meditation practice has helped them improve their general well‑being.
Scientific Support for Prenatal Meditation
There is evidence that meditation may be beneficial for pregnant people in particular.
A small study published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing suggests that women who practiced meditation during pregnancy managed to reduce their levels of perceived anxiety and stress by the time they delivered their babies.
Another study published in Infant Behavior and Development analyzed cortisol (a stress hormone) in cord blood, infant saliva, and results of the questionnaire on infant behavior of 179 babies. Some of the babies’ mothers attended six instructional sessions on mindfulness and meditation during their pregnancy, including mindful walking, body scan meditation, and mindful breathing.
The babies of the women who practiced meditation during pregnancy showed fewer signs of stress. And their average questionnaire results suggested they had a“better temperament” than the babies of women who didn’t meditate.
In a study of nonpregnant people, meditation appeared to lower levels of cortisol and shift the body out of the fight-or-flight response—leaving the participants feeling calmer and more relaxed.
Potential Benefits of Meditation During Pregnancy and Childbirth
“Pregnancy can raise levels of stress, anxiety, and depression with the onset of physical symptoms that are evolving and the unknowns of birth, as well as the adjustment of life after birth,” says de Llano. “Meditation can help quell some of the overwhelm by helping mothers focus on one thing at a time, getting through each moment and each day.”
De Llano has professional as well as personal experience of the benefits of meditation during pregnancy.
Part of her training involved learning from the American Red Cross how to help expectant mothers cope with the anxieties of pregnancy and birth. One of the suggested methods was a self-guided meditation that involved focusing on the roundness of the lights on the ceiling of the delivery room, which was said to help induce dilation.
De Llano turned to this strategy during her own childbirth experience. She had been in labor for nearly 36 hours when she was told that her doctor would be preparing her for a cesarean section.
“I couldn’t manage to dilate,” she says. “So, I asked everyone to leave the room, the lights were dimmed, and I slowly guided myself into a profound visualization of opening.” Within minutes—and to the staff's disbelief—de Llano was fully dilated and ready to deliver, she says.
How to Get Started with Prenatal Meditation
If you’ve never experienced meditation, de Llano suggests starting by asking yourself what you’re seeking from meditation and why. For instance, she says, do you want to feel more relaxed about labor and childbirth? Or do you want to start building a foundation for mindful, centered parenting? “Identifying your motivation should help lead you into the process of finding the right method,” she says.
Then, be open to trying out a few different methods and instructors. An app like Happify might be a helpful way for you to sample what’s available. There’s also a selection of audio meditations created specifically for pregnant people and new parents right here on our site and app.
If you like the idea of meditating with an in-person guide, you can search for meditation schools or yoga studios near you that hold meditation classes for pregnant people. Brewer says that group practices offer the additional benefit of a devoted space to center oneself and connect with others, fostering community and support during this precious time.
Making It a Habit
Many people are juggling work, family, and other responsibilities—and these don’t disappear during pregnancy. Telling an overwhelmed pregnant person that they need to find time to relax is like telling a highly agitated person to chill out. But de Llano says that finding time to meditate doesn’t need to be a time-consuming item on the to-do list. She suggests starting with simple two-minute exercises that can be fit into daily activities.
“The late master and father of mindfulness, Thich Nath Hanh, taught us to use everyday tasks to meditate,” de Llano says.
Something as ordinary as washing your hands can become a meditation if, rather than mindlessly rushing through the task, we can practice awareness. While washing up, try to pay attention to the texture and temperature of the water, notice the friction of your hands when you rub them together, the feeling of your skin, and listen to the sound of the flowing water. Allow yourself to feel all the sensations. And then note how you feel afterward.
“Mundane experiences such as these become small meditations that get us out of our busy minds and into the present moment,” de Llano explains. “This is one of meditation's greatest gifts—it takes us away from worries of what was or what will be and allows us to experience the here and now.”
Other ways to carve out time include consciously sipping a cup of tea and taking 60-second “thought breaks” throughout your day during which you just let your mind wander.
For those seeking to commit to a practice, de Llano recommends starting with a small amount of dedicated time, such as 10 minutes, and building from there.
“Making meditation a priority starts with a mindset shift: knowing that your mind is the seed of everything else in your life,” Brewer says.
She acknowledges that this might take a little mental work but says that the potential benefits are well worth it. “When you first get started, it can feel like a chore to dedicate time to such a seemingly passive activity. But once you start to feel the positive benefits in your life and see how much time you get back, you'll have no difficulty carving out the time.”
Continuing with Postpartum Meditation
If you enjoy meditation during pregnancy, there’s no reason to quit the habit when the baby arrives. Long-time meditator Heather N., from New York City, gave birth in 2021 and believes her postpartum meditation practice has benefits not only for her and her baby but also for her relationship. She said it eased her and her partner’s transition into their new roles as parents.
"Aside from the personal benefits of meditation,” Heather says, “I felt like we could work together in sharing childcare responsibilities, making decisions around daycare, finances, and competing work commitments, because I was regularly taking time to clear my mind and reset.”
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